by Karl Frost
Over the past year and a half, I have spent about a month with the Unist’ot’en, helping with building projects and talking with people about oil and gas politics and First Nations sovereignty struggles. I keep having people ask me about camp, people sympathetic to the environmental and First Nations sovereignty concerns driving Unist’ot’en Camp, people who are interested in going, but who don’t know what to expect. Police presence has escalated. Part of the camp is explicitly prepared to face arrest compelled by their felt obligations to protect the land as guided by ethics and First Nations law. Arrests are quite a real threat. I am writing based on what I understand and am not in any way acting as a representative for the camp. I am simply writing as someone who has spent some time with the camp and as someone who cares deeply about many of the same issues as the Unist’ot’en.
The Unist’ot’en are a clan of the Wet’suet’en First Nation in northern British Columbia. Their traditional territory is a vast area near the town of Houston. Like many others in the region, they never ceded their territories to Canada in the early days of Canadian colonialism, which gives them a unique legal standing and sovereignty on their territories, recognized through the Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot’in rulings of the Canadian Supreme Court. As such, legally government and industry are not allowed to enter or do anything on their territories without their explicit prior informed consent. They have considered the issues of oil and gas pipelines and have taken a firm principled stance against them. This includes setting up a high profile camp on their traditional territory to monitor territorial borders and deny access to pipeline workers. For more details, here is an excellent article on the Unist’ot’en, their work, the solidarity movement that has arisen around them, and industry and police response…
Here are several links for more information on camp and getting involved …
- The Unist’ot’en Camp web page http://unistotencamp.com/
- The Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/unistoten
- The Vancouver solidarity group https://unistotencampsignup.wordpress.com/
- The Victoria solidarity group. http://forestaction.wikidot.com/caravan
If you are interested in going to camp in solidarity, to help in land defense, there is a standing invitation for people to come to camp to help out. There are two main gatherings in the year: Action Camp in July (more geared toward networking and training in decolonization and direct action resistance) and Work Weeks in May (more centrally focused on building projects for infrastructure). People are invited, however, to come year round to lend a hand and be there as support. Guests are asked to come with the clear understanding that this is Unist’ot’en land, that The Unist’ot’en are the leaders of the action, and that the goal of the camp is to support the Unist’ot’en in their struggles. We take direction from the Unist’ot’en at camp, supporting them in what they need. We are their guests while there. There is a vetting process which would be initiated through contacting one of the solidarity groups above, who act to make sure all of this is clear. This is not a horizontal ‘occupy’-style event. We go to assist the Unist’ot’en and follow their lead. When you come to camp, there is a protocol process that all are asked to go through, quite similar to the protocol that anyone would go through when entering a country of which they are not a citizen.
Police action, arrest, and avoiding arrest if you are not ready to be arrested
The history of land defence and First Nations sovereignty struggles has been fraught with police conflict and arrests. Many Unist’ot’en and their allies have publicly declared that they are not willing to let threats of arrest stop them from following their felt sense of duty to defend the land. It is a real part of regular conversations that police will eventually move in for arrests. Police have been massing in the area and the pipeline company, Coastal Gas Link have equipment and people in place to do work on the territory. There is a significant chance of the police trying to forcibly escort pipeline workers onto Unist’ot’en territory. This is not inevitable, but there is a strong possibility.
In talking about camp, I have been asked about what it might be like to go there, afraid of what confrontation with police might look like. Specifically, some want to support but are not ready to be arrested or of violent conflict. If you want to help, but are not ready to stand in a way that could get you arrested, there is still much need for people on the land to stand in support in other ways. Risks of arrest for those who don’t want to be arrested are quite minimal. There is still very much a need for people in support roles, like cooking, helping with continued work on the healing center, or being there as supportive witnesses. These non-arrest roles are vital to free up focus for others who are ready to be arrested, if necessary.
In particular, by bearing witness, people help keep the event peaceful. It is in some ways especially important for non-indigenous allies to come as witnesses or as people also willing to face arrest. Canada has an incredibly dark history of racism and a long, violent history of relationship to First Nations. Police interactions in conflict with First Nations people can be brutal. For reference, read on Oka Crisis, Gustafson Lake, Burned Church, Elsipogtog, etc.. Having non-indigenous (especially white) others there as concerned witnesses (and especially as those willing to stand up and risk arrest) is perceived to make violence significantly less likely to occur.
We do not know that the police will move on the camp right now. If they do, what usually happens in these cases, as happened with the very recent Burnaby Mountain protests against the Kinder Morgan bitumen pipeline work, is that the police ask all to stand aside who do not want to be arrested and that those who do not stand aside will be arrested. It is more likely that this kind of less violent protocol will be followed in high visibility events like this, especially with white people there.
So, if you want to come in a spirit of support, you would be welcomed with open arms, your support is needed, and if you don’t want to risk arrest, this risk can be made to be negligible. It is also an incredibly empowering experience to take a stand in solidarity.
Are arrests about to happen?
There are mixed opinions on this ranging from ‘possibly’ to ‘definitely’. No one is saying ‘definitely not’.
What is clear right now is that police have been massing in Houston. There has been an increase in police harassment of camp since July, including setting up checkpoints to take down license plates of cars and numbers of people going in and out and names and IDs of drivers. Just this week, police have been seen in enormous numbers in the area and have made their presence quite clear on the road into Unist’ot’en territory. Grand Band Chief of BC, Stewart Phillips, has gotten reports of a very big increase in high level talks amongst police, military , government, and industry. It is very clear that Unist’ot’en Camp is a very big concern for the Harper government and big oil and gas, both in itself and as an example that others might replicate (See the Madii Lii Camp in Gitksan territory blocking the rest of the proposed pipelines and the Lelu Island camp in Tsimshian territory which just got established days ago in order to prevent the building of Petronas’s LNG/fracked gas export facility, threatening the salmon of Skeena). Also, Coastal Gas Link has all of their equipment and people in place, their work camps constructed, and have filed a report with the police. This last is a signal that they are going to try to get an injunction, a legal court order for people to be cleared out of the land so that they can do their work.
The police have come out with two conflicting statements. The first is that contrary to rumors, they have no intention of taking down the camp. However, in conversations with Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en spokesperson, the federal police have said that they have justification to make arrests as they have determined the road through their territory to be a public road and that they can arrest people for impeding people who want to move on the road.
This all seems to point to the police being ready to escort the pipeline workers onto the territory, arresting any who try to obstruct them.
However, there are a number of other things going on which make it less than inevitable that the police will move on camp. The main one is the legal status of the land.
There is very firm legal ground for the Unist’ot’en to be within their rights, as established by the Candian Supreme Court in the Delgamuukw and Tsilqot’in rulings. The Unist’ot’en chiefs are mentioned by name in Delgamuukw, so it is not even a matter of extending this case to them. The Supreme Court recognized their territorial sovereignty directly by name, and last year’s Tsiilqot’in ruling spelled out that this means that they have the right to require prior and informed consent. Even if there was a way around this, an injunction issued by a lower court would immediately be met by a legitimate appeal, which would take it to the Supreme Court, which would likely then be drawn out for years. The government knows this, and this is likely why they have failed to move directly on the Unist’ot’en and start arrests. There are many within the First Nations sovereignty movement who would actually look forward to the police trying to enforce an injunction or make arrests, knowing how the Canadian federal government would get thrashed in their own courts over it.
It is, of course, election season, and the Conservatives are looking likely to lose power. This sets up a number of wild cards. On the one hand, it may rally a lot of people against the Conservatives if they create a crisis through an illegal attack on the Unist’ot’en. It could be an enormous embarrassment for them. On the other, they could use this to set people into a crisis mode and potentially give them an excuse to activate anti-democratic aspects of the new c-51 anti-terror bill. It’s hard to say exactly how this will be affecting government decision-makers.
Still, they may not move on camp. Why would they be massing, then? There are a number of possibilities and any combination of them might be true.
- They may have been intending to move on the camp, but are hesitating.
- They may be getting ready to move on the camp in case something shifts and it becomes slightly more legally justifiable.
- They might be testing the waters to see what sort of support camp can muster on short notice.
- They might be trying to wear on the nerves of camp supporters, getting people to rush to camp repeatedly from hours of driving away and wear themselves out in so doing.
It could go either way, and I think everyone is planning accordingly. It also seems clear that people going to camp now in solidarity decreases the chances that the police will move on the camp, at least for the moment. People have been streaming into camp in solidarity since the first reports of massing police. A letter has also been distributed with many high profile signatories in support of the Unist’ot’en, calling on the federal government to back off and respect First Nations rights.
One final note on the possibility of arrests. Yes, it may happen, but if it does, it is not the end, but the beginning. It will set in motion legal processes which could hang things up in the courts for years and which the Unist’ot’en are likely to win, setting even stronger legal standards in the future for First Nations sovereignty. It would also trigger an outpouring of solidarity actions in response, both on the territory and in a decentralized way around the province. Support for camp has been spectacular and international. It would of course be a struggle, but one that can be won. It is a very long way from beginning survey work to completing a pipeline and a dizzying array of possibilities for disruption exist in that time. While we most want the pipeline companies to simply drop their proposals and to have a new government in Canada without an escalating conflict, in a way it would be a very exciting new point in the struggle. I say this in part to fend off the panic mentality that can potentially wear on the nerves of people involved in the struggle. I think we should be ready and take actions, but also self-care and not give into panic. This struggle is going to go on for a while.